Monday, 7 December 2015
Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Cornwall 2015 (part 2)
Anyone going anywhere in the British Isles any time of year knows not to take the weather for granted - this is, after all, a part of the world where the only predictable thing about the weather is its unpredictability - but even so I seem to have been unluckier than most when it comes to weekend breaks in Cornwall. A trip in April last year was characterised by various terrifying trips through the driving rain to be greeted with a "you should have been here yesterday, it was bright sunshine", and whilst less spectacularly apocalyptic, events on this most recent trip took place under a constant grey blanket of drizzle. I warn you, Cornwall, if I don't see the sun next time I'm going to take it personally.
Fortunately, shelter from the storm came in the form of Martindale, a sumptuously restored cottage (or rather, series of cottages; the place is huge) in the pretty hamlet of Penrose, on the hills just outside of Padstow. It is, apparently, Jill Stein's work, a restoration and interior design project that cleverly blends the latest tech (every room has a wireless speaker system and a tablet to control it) and a very high level of finishing detail (the warm brick floors in the main living room were a particular hit) with a building and setting that is still very much of Cornwall. It's a lovely place, and collapsing in the TV room in the evening while rain battered the skylights overhead comes very much recommended.
But, fun though it was hiding in Martindale and playing with the electric blinds, we had producers to see. So after a breakfast of kippers and bacon sandwiches in Stein's Cafe in town, we were picked up and taken to the Padstow Kitchen Gardens to see where the vegetables we'd eaten at St Petroc's the night before - along with a great deal else besides - began their lives.
So as the rain battered our backs and my flimsy London clothes were tested to saturation point (they let me borrow a pair of wellies, with a look halfway between concern and pity) we went on a tour of the farm. Ross Geach has come to farming from quite a unique place, having first worked with the Steins in their restaurants, gaining a thorough understanding of the kind of things required by a high-end kitchen, and then using his dad's farm to - slowly at first, but now covering acres - grow the kind of speciality fruit & veg increasingly demanded by those kinds of places. Geach created his own demand for flower sprouts, for example, by using his connections in Padstow kitchens to get them on the menu, and likewise Padron Peppers, weird gnarly things packing a load of heat & flavour, which we also ate at St Petroc's the night before.
It's a finely balanced relationship, a virtuous circle of supply and demand. A farm producing food they know they can sell, and a restaurant (or more accurately in this case, a series of restaurants) with a varied and interesting supply guaranteed in quality by a man in charge with an insider knowledge of what restaurants can and can't use. It's a great system.
Nearby, also on the hills outside Padstow, is a chilly warehouse (look I know I keep going on about the weather but honest to God, it was relentless) currently home to the South West Distillery. Another local success story, Tarquin began distilling gin in his home kitchen, and once he got the hang of it scaled up to a small corner of an industrial estate. Today a series of impressive copper stills fired by reappropriated paella burners (and a brand new contraption from Italy yet to be installed on our visit) occupy a huge space and there are no plans to stop there. As well as the signature Tarquin's gin (each bottle wax-sealed by hand) Tarquin also makes Cornish Pastis, which surely ranks as one of the most brilliant product name puns in the history of the world. Cornwall increasingly seems full of these interesting food and drink stories; Tarquin's story is hardly unusual, though it is impressive.
It's probably not surprising that, next to all these rising stars, exciting producers and new Cornish talent, the old stalwarts whose risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit defined the first generation of the Cornish Food Revolution are starting to look a little old fashioned. We certainly enjoyed our meal at the Seafood restuarant in Padstow - the Singapore Chilli Crab is still a stunning dish, and the Indonesian Seafood Curry contained some remarkably precisely-cooked bits of fresh fish - but it all seemed less about what Cornwall is about in 2015 than what the legions of Rick Stein fans that flock to Padstow expect to find. We can, in short, be eternally grateful for what this place did for the Cornish restaurant scene back in the day, whilst still thinking paying £50 for lobster thermidor is a bit odd. It's still undoubtedly popular though, so there's clearly room for everyone.
On Sunday, our final meal was at the St Tudy Inn, a place far more closely following the Cornwall 2015 brief. In a comfortable dining room heated by a log fire, with a pint of local ale to warm our damp spirits (yes, it was still raining outside), chef Emily Scott presents an exquisitely tasteful menu of modern Cornish gastropub dishes, such as this vast mound of fresh Padstow crab with lemon mayo, or seabass with garlic and fennel.
All the suppliers are lovingly listed on the back of the menu, from the peerless Warren's butchers, to Hanson fine foods for the wonderful cheese course we packed up for the train home, and of course Padstow Kitchen Gardens for veg. It was a neat summary, in fact, of everything we'd learned about cornish food scene in the last few days, elegantly put into practice. Anywhere else, St Tudy's would be a destination foodie spot, but then St Tudy's couldn't exist anywhere else. These suppliers don't exist anywhere else. Talent like this would struggle to find ingredients like these anywhere else to work with, and maybe couldn't find a dedicated local audience that appreciated their efforts anyway. The point I'm trying to make, over these last couple of Cornwall posts, is that this is a very special part of the world, and one I intend to return to as often as I possibly can. Only, can we have a bit of sun next time do you think?
2 nights at Martindale, breakfast at Rick Stein's Cafe, dinner at the Seafood Restaurant and lunch at Stein's fish & chips all provided by the assorted Steins. Many thanks to Padstow Kitchen Gardens and the Southwestern Distillery for showing us around. Rail tickets to and from Cornwall provided by GWR. And most of all thank you to Rosie, who made the whole thing happen.